Cookbooks Echo With the Wisdom of Chefs Past

The New York Times
January 28, 2013
By Kate Murphy

When her mother died three years ago, Lynell George, a writer and assistant professor of journalism at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, assumed the responsibility of making the family's traditional New Year's Day gumbo. Leafing through her mother's cookbooks, she heard her mother's Creole-inflected voice in the margins.

"Things were crossed out, and she had left notes like 'needs more crab', 'go Monday for Andouille' and 'no okra in this,' " Ms. George said. "It was very emotional, like she was standing behind me."

Ghosts linger in old cookbooks, possibly the most annotated form of literature. People who wouldn't dream of writing in other kinds of books don't hesitate to edit ("add 1/2 t. cayenne"), write reviews ("never again") and even note special occasions ("anniversary party '84") next to recipes. Whether practical, historical, sentimental or smudged with chocolate ganache, marginalia in cookbooks can tell the story of a life and be a lasting memorial to the scribbler.

For Beth Ann Fennelly, a poet and associate professor of English at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, reading her mother's cookbooks is like reading her diary.

"She would write not just the things you would expect next to a recipe, like 'raise the heat to 375 for the last 15 minutes,' but she would write down the guests who came to the dinner party, and the side dishes," Ms. Fennelly said. Moreover, her mother, a lifelong homemaker, had a curiously haiku-ish way of noting how things were served: "The asparagus soup on the yellow linen napkins with the crocus in the Wedgewood."

Ms. Fennelly has similarly annotated her own cookbooks to indicate which recipes are her children's favorites and the meal she made for her husband when she told him they were expecting their second child. "It was a roasted duck with port sauce that took eight hours to make," she said. "Dessert was him opening the little box that he thought was a pen but contained the positive pregnancy test."

The date, the menu and his surprise are all recorded in her cookbook. "When I think of things one would grab in a fire, I think of my cookbooks," she said. "They are my treasures."

Though Ms. Fennelly is unlikely to part with her cookbooks, booksellers said her annotations might be a selling point. "There are collectors who think marginalia is more valuable and interesting than the recipes," said Bonnie Slotnick, the eponymous owner of a Greenwich Village bookstore that specializes in vintage cookbooks. "I used to apologize when there was writing in books, but I have people who tell me, 'No, that's the best part!'"

Paula Fujiwara, a San Francisco physician who collects 19th-century cookbooks, considers marginalia a beckoning from beyond. "It gives you an insight to another time and what the owners were thinking," she said. One of the more intriguing cookbooks in her collection is an 1859 compilation titled "Breakfast, Dinner and Tea." It belonged to one Ellen Pike, who, according to her spidery Victorian handwriting, adored dried apple jelly. On several pages, she also poignantly noted the date her year-old son died.

More humorous are the inscriptions that Robin Graham, a freelance editor in Milwaukee who collects mid-20th-century cookbooks, found in a copy of "The Special Diet Cookbook" by Marvin Small. Hand-printed on the flyleaf of the 1952 book is an urgent and ungrammatical rant about the mortal dangers of mustard, egg whites, pepper, vinegar and "land salt." On the first page of a chapter of recipes to relieve constipation, the same person wrote, "This looks best."

While it is unclear who owned the book, Ms. Graham envisions a bald, portly man with glasses and a mustache. "It's cool to put a face on it and wonder who he was," she said, adding that it is certainly not the recipes in the book that appeal to her. "Who eats aspic?"

The jottings of culinary legends are particularly prized. Julia Child prominently wrote her name in many of her cookbooks, as well as the date she acquired them and which kitchen she used them in — she had homes in Cambridge, Mass., and Provence in France. Her cookbook collection is now housed at Harvard, in the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.

Mrs. Child's most extensive notations, tellingly, are next to entries concerning tripe and organ meats. But perhaps even more interesting are the additions written by whoever gave her the book. One example is Nina Simonds, whom Mrs. Child encouraged to pursue her interest in Chinese cuisine by traveling to that country, where she ultimately translated and wrote Chinese cookbooks.

"Nina Simonds sent a copy of one of her books to Julia and wrote a warm full-page letter on the front flyleaf, because Chinese postal regulations forbade the inclusion of a separate letter with a book," said Marylène Altieri, a curator at the Schlesinger Library. The chatty note describes her apprenticeship in a small restaurant in China that was "generous with the samples."

The cutting wit of the renowned British food writer Elizabeth David is evident in the marginalia of her cookbooks, now kept at the Guildhall Library in London. Her scribbles are on bits of paper (grocery receipts, bus tickets, postcards, Post-it notes) distributed throughout the texts. In her copy of "The Cooking of Italy" (1969) by the American food writer Waverley Root, she wrote, "Waverley Root is a pitiful phony." Referring to a recipe for cold macaroni salad involving "tinned pears" in "Ulster Fare" (1945) by the Belfast Women's Institute Club, Ms. David wrote, "Sounds just about the most revolting dish ever devised."

Whether famous chefs or ordinary home cooks, cookbook users tend to be ready collaborators and critics, said Heather Jackson, professor of English at the University of Toronto and the author of "Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books." Though they wouldn't presume to delete characters or suggest an alternate ending to say, a work of fiction, they'll do the equivalent in a cookbook. In the course of her research, Ms. Jackson said, she often found changed recipes or entirely new ones written or pasted into cookbooks.

"People might abhor notes or highlighting in other books, but no one really minds seeing a cookbook get marked up," she said. "What happens over time is, these notes that seem practical and peripheral take on historical value, and within a family or among friends they may take on sentimental value."

Recipe reviews and comments on Web sites like Epicurious.com and Allrecipes.com just aren't the same, said Laura Petelle, a lawyer in Peoria, Ill., who marks up her own cookbooks and enjoys borrowing friends' to look at their notations. "Reading actual handwritten notes in a cookbook with all the stains and the wrinkles, you come away with a personality, and you're learning what they make for their family and how they make it," she said. Besides, "People online are crazy, you know, suggesting you substitute ketchup for tomatoes."

As for cookbook authors, Anthony Bourdain, for one, said he would not be the least offended to learn that copies of his popular "Les Halles Cookbook" were filled with users' smears and suggestions. "It would please me very much to think of someone scrawling in it," he said, "or spilling sauce on it, getting crushed pepper in the binding."

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